Newspaper's AOL Venture Has 30,000-plus Users

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Not bad so far.

That's how executives at the San Jose Mercury News describe the results of their online newspaper.

The San Jose Mercury Center, an online service on America Online, was launched last May. Since then, 33,700 users, or about 12% of the Mercury News' daily circulation, have signed up.

That penetration percentage among Mercury News readers is a good record for a new communication form, says Chris Jennewein, general manager of the Mercury Center.

User demographics are similar to that of computer owners overall-primarily males with above average education and incomes.

Each day, Mercury Center offers the complete text of the Mercury News, plus stories that may not have made it to print.

In addition, the service provides access to most classified ads and a way to send electronic messages to the paper's writers and local officials.

On-line display advertising is promised by mid-year, when America Online produces graphics technology. But in March, the Mercury Center began offering slots on its Mercury Mall, an advertiser directory separate from the news service.

The center charges a $500 set-up fee for each of those ads, plus $250 for each 14-day period the ad runs. So far, five local advertisers are on board.

Both Mr. Jennewein and some of the mall's advertisers believe it's too soon to evaluate this experiment.

Mall advertiser Access Computers, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based retailer, hasn't seen a major sales upswing, says Marketing Manager Sandy Hsu.

But Ms. Hsu says she's happy with Mercury Center, noting it's solved one print problem: "I don't have to touch the newspaper and get my fingers dirty."

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